Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The mainstream media’s lopsided coverage of the presidential campaign has gotten so blatantly anti-Trump and pro-Hillary that even some progressives are starting to notice. The New York Times’ media reporter Jim Rutenberg last month had a front-page column slyly justifying the bias by a clever use of rhetorical questions: “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”
Rutenberg’s dubious implication is that Trump is so outrageously unprecedented and dangerous a candidate in American history that he can’t be covered objectively. “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.” But Rutenberg says he rues this development, for it compromises “that idealistic form of journalism with a capital ‘J’ we’ve been trained to always strive for.”
Say what? Was it an “idealistic form of journalism” when the media carried on its “slobbering love affair,” as Bernie Goldberg put it, with Barack Obama in 2008? Where were the intrepid “guardians” of the public weal when the media ignored the gaps in Obama’s history, his fabrications in his memoirs, and his associations with the racist pastor Jeremiah Wright and the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayres? Or when Journolist, an online discussion group of journalists and activists, colluded to downplay these unpleasant facts and coordinate negative coverage of the Republicans?
Or how about CNN Political Correspondent Candy Crowley in the 2012 presidential debate, violating every canon of professional objectivity when she intruded herself into the debate in Obama’s favor by backing up his false claim that he had called the Benghazi attacks an act of terror? And don’t forget Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who recently wrote in Time magazine, “Like it or not, this election is a plebiscite on the most divisive, polarizing and disrupting figure in American politics in decades. And neutrality is not an option.” Or CNN calling “false,” without any evidence, AP’s story that more than half of Hillary’s non-governmental meetings while Secretary of State were with donors to her foundation. Are these examples of “idealistic” journalism?
Despite all this contrary evidence, Rutenberg recycles one of the progressive media’s most cherished self-justifying myths, that there really is an “objective” journalism they supposedly practice. Such a notion has seldom existed in American history, and has especially been scarce since the 1960s, when activist journalism came out of the closet with its ideological coverage of Vietnam and then Watergate, all perfumed with the spurious claim to journalistic integrity and public service.
The truth is, journalism has been a form of political activism long before Jim Rutenberg noticed. Orville Schell, dean of the prestigious UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism from 1996-2006, was not shy about embracing this role for journalism: “In a democracy,” Schell wrote over a decade ago, “indeed in any intelligent society, the media and politicians have to lead. The media should be introducing us to new things, interesting things, things we don’t already know about; helping us change our minds or make up our minds, not just pandering to lowest-denominator wisdom.”
As I wrote about this statement in 2004,
This brief statement is a gold mine of liberal media pathologies. First, there is the assertion that the media––staffed by the unelected and run by those dedicated to profit––should “lead” us. Lead us where? Who decides where we should go? Based on what ideas or principles? And how do we hold these media “leaders” accountable?
The fundamental elitist assumption is that the people need “leading” in the first place, since they are incapable of knowing on their own where they should be going and how they should get there. Thus the media should be “helping us change our minds.” Again, who decides to which ideas our minds should be changed? Those in the media, who use their influence to promote their particular ideologies, prejudices, and preferences, not to mention their own careers? The blurring of reporting and opinion . . . has never been so brazenly asserted.
Orville’s attitude is dominant among the mainstream media today. The current excesses we see in the coverage of this year’s presidential election are simply more shameless examples of the same activism.
But we need to look more closely at the begged question that “objective” journalism about anything other than obvious facts should be the norm, or that it is even widely and consistently possible. Until the progressive movement created the camouflage of “objectivity,” American newspapers wore their political biases on their sleeves, which is why so many newspapers had titles including the words “Democrat” or “Republican.” Just as old are complaints about the demagogic political coverage by newspapers and other periodicals. In 1805, Federalist antidemocrat Fisher Ames groused that “by supplying an endless stimulus to [the people’s] imagination and passions,” the press “has rendered their temper and habits infinitely worse . . . Public affairs are transacted now on a stage where all the interests and passions grow out of fiction.” But unlike today’s progressives and their phony love for the “people,” Ames was frankly dismissive of the masses and their susceptibility to such manipulation, which in turn justified limiting their participation in government.
It was the progressives of the late 19th century, constantly touting their desire to “perfect” American democracy and better serve the “people,” who had a different solution to the problem of what we would call media bias. In his 1919 book Liberty and the News, progressive Walter Lippmann was equally dismissive of the journalists of his day, whose task had “become confused with the work of preachers, revivalists, prophets and agitators.” His influential solution was to make journalism a “profession” conducted according to the canons of science, and for society to provide “genuine training schools for the men upon whose sagacity [the citizens] were dependent.” Such schools would have “to wait upon the development of psychology and political science,” but once armed with such knowledge, they could become objective journalists, above all the political passions of less “sagacious” folk. Then journalists, like scientists, would practice a “unity of method, rather than of aim; the unity of the disciplined experiment.” Hence today most journalists are products of the progressive university cocoon, unlike in the past, when reporters typically came from the gritty streets of the working class.
In short, Lippmann was advocating for the same pseudo-scientific techniques of governing and controlling the people that progressives over the next century would inflict on citizens through a bloated federal government comprising regulatory agencies staffed by unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats. Left unchallenged is the idea that politics––an activity driven in the main not by rational, objective policy discussions, but by the conflicting passions and interests of flawed human beings––can be understood and managed scientifically. Equally delusional is the progressive notion that “professional” journalists trained in a rational “method” and Olympian objectivity will not be influenced by their own ideological passions and interests.
So what’s the solution? The proliferation of news and opinion sources created by talk radio, social media, and the Internet has partially has restored balance among conflicting political ideas. Instead of three television networks and maybe fifty columnists and magazine writers monopolizing and manipulating public opinion, today there are hundreds of thousands of diverse voices, all instantly accountable to the collective wisdom––or reflective of the passions and follies––of millions of consumers. We have returned to the pre-television era when every major city had numerous newspapers, each openly displaying its political preference.
But such variety of information sources means that each of us has to take responsibility for exercising our own critical judgment about what we read and hear from the media, and expect that they are necessarily biased, despite their protestations of fealty to objectivity and truth. Millions of citizens fail to do so, of course, in every election, but the responsibility for the consequences of that failure lies with them. And so it must be in a free society in which the people regulate political power, for there is no genuine political freedom without responsibility and accountability for the decisions freely made. The continuing viability of democratic freedom depends on us using that judgment and proving, contrary to the technocratic progressive elites, that the people are capable of self-rule.
The Roman satirist Juvenal asked, “Who will guard the guardians?” In a free Republic, the answer is we the people.